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Summer Reading List: 12 Little Known Gems

2013 May 26
by Greg Satell

Summer is here!  If you’re anything like me, you’ll be spending countless hours in the sun, with a cold beer and a good book.  The warmer months are always a great time to catch up on some reading between all of the ballgames and barbecues.

Most likely, you’ll pack in a few of the bestsellers on the shelves this year and there’s nothing wrong with that. There is always something to be said for popularity (psychologists even call it “social proof”).

Yet I’ve found that some of the best books often fall through the cracks.  So this summer, I’m focusing my reading list on great titles that you probably never heard of, but are among the best you’ll ever find.  As always, you can purchase the books by clicking on the links provided.  So have a great summer, happy reading and remember to wear sunblock

1. Weaving the Web by Tim Berners-Lee

Okay, this one absolutely has to go first on the list!  There are a lot of books about the Web, but only one by the guy who invented it, Tim Berners-Lee.  Published back in 2000, he not only shares his vision for the first Web, but also for the Semantic Web that is just gaining traction now.

However, it’s more than just a technology book, it is also a personal memoir.  He not only chronicles events, but shares what he was thinking and feeling when they happened.  How he struggled to get his idea adopted by others, before he went and built it himself and touching personal details such as the birth of his children.

If you are at all interested in digital technology, this is one you have to read.

 

2. Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! by Richard Feynman

Ever wondered what it would be like to peer into the mind of a genius?

Richard Feynman was not only one of the greatest scientists who ever lived, he was also probably the funniest.  In this phenomenal book, he tells the story of his life as well as of his endless series of pranks (such as flouting the security procedures of the Manhattan project by learning how to crack safes).

Most of all, he offers enormous insights into how he thought and approached problems. You’ll feel smarter just reading it.

It’s a very rare that a book can both inspire you and make you constantly laugh out loud. This one does.

 

3. Six Degreesby Duncan Watts

Everybody is crazy about social media, but few know much about social networks, the science that underlies how we (and other things as well) link together in complex environments.

Duncan Watts was a pioneer in the field, co-authoring one of the seminal papers (with Steven Strogatz below).  Much like Tim-Berners Lee in Weaving the Web, he gives a very readable account of his discovery of the principles of networks and how they can be applied to business and everyday life.

This book is lots of fun and extremely informative.  If you ever wanted to know the science behind all those tweets and likes (and much more), this is for you.

 

4. A Mathematician’s Apology   by G.H. Hardy

G.H. Hardy was undoubtedly one of the great minds of the early 20th century (and also the discoverer of Ramanujan).  In this delightful little memoir, he endeavors to make the case for a life spent proving obscure theorems with little or no practical applications (or so he thought at the time).  He does so with remarkable wit and clarity.

One of the things that makes this book such a joy (besides its short length) is the timeless aphorisms he leaves us with such as:

It is not worth an intelligent man’s time to be in the majority. By definition, there are already enough people to do that.

and

For any serious purpose, intelligence is a very minor gift.

 

As I said, an absolute delight!

 

5. The (Mis)behavior of Markets by Benoit Mandelbrot

Every once in awhile, a mind comes along so unusual, it creates a completely new paradigm.  Benoit Mandelbrot undoubtedly was that kind of man.

In this memoir (not to be confused with his more recent, but inferior, posthumous autobiography), he recounts his amazing personal story of surviving the Holocaust and then creating a completely new branch of mathematics, fractal geometry.  He then goes on to describe how he, almost by chance, uncovered the flaws in Wall Street’s models more than four decades before the 2008 financial crises.

Dr. Mandelbrot’s ideas have had an enormous impact on not only finance, but fields as wide ranging as computer graphics and chaos theory.  This is one of those books that will change the way you think.

 

6. Thinking Strategically by Avinash K. Dixit and Barry J. Nalebuff

Game theory is one of those areas that seems excruciatingly dry while at the same time hopelessly abstract.  It’s no wonder that most people pass it by and move on to other things.

In Thinking Strategically, however, Dixit and Nalebuff make it come alive with simple down-to-earth explanations of realistic examples.  It’s a fun read and very worthwhile.  So if you were ever interested in Game Theory, but reluctant to delve into it, this is the book for you.

Incidentally, while the authors are both academics, Barry Nalebuff has become a successful entrepreneur in his own right as the Cofounder and Chairman of Honest Tea.

 

7. Crimes Against Logic by Jamie Whyte

Everyday, we are inundated by pundits, politicians, self-help gurus and others trying to sell us ideas.  Many not only play fast and loose with facts, but fail the basic test of validity in that their statements are logically nonsensical.

Jamie Whyte unmasks these peccadilloes in an entertaining and often hilarious style. With clear sighted precision, he shows us how to see the logical errors in others and in ourselves. This is a book that both entertaining and useful.

 

8. Full House by Stephen Jay Gould

Stephen J. Gould became famous as a biologist, but this book has relevance far beyond his chosen field, or even science generally.  It is probably best understood as a guide to understanding data, using examples ranging from baseball to evolution.

It begins with a trip to the doctor’s office where Mr. Gould is diagnosed with cancer. When he asks about the prognosis, he is told that the average person with his condition has only 8 months to live.  Depressed, he returns home and starts to wonder what the doctor meant by “average” and realizes that his chances might not be so bad after all (they weren’t, he lived another two decades before his death in 2002).

I first read this book almost twenty years ago and it was what first got me interested in data analysis.  So if you want an easy guide with interesting examples and no Greek letter formulas, you might want to check this out.

 

9. Good Strategy / Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt

Strategy books are a dime a dozen and most aren’t worth the time.  They range from enormously complicated academic tomes to the incredibly banal “back of the room” variety that consultants and strategy entrepreneurs have printed up to make themselves look important.  True insight is rare.

This gem by UCLA professor and Uber-consultant Richard Rumelt breaks the mold. Hard-hitting and often funny, he takes us through real life stories of strategies and shows us the difference between the good ones and the bad ones.  I especially liked his formulation of  good strategy as “relative strength against relative weakness.”

If you read one book about business strategy this summer, make this it.  You will be happy you did.

 

10. The Joy of X by Steven Strogatz

Steven Strogatz is one of those rare people who excels at both serious research (he was Duncan Watts’ thesis advisor) and a popularizer (he writes a terrific column for The New York Times).

One of his research topics even became a season-long plot line for the hit series Numbers and he’s also apparently quite the athlete (his website notes that he won a punt, pass and kick competition when he was 9).

The Joy of X combines scholarship with simplicity and fun.  Starting from Sesame Street and eventually building to advanced subjects like Statistics and Calculus, he maintains a lighthearted, easy style which makes complex topics so understandable and interesting you’ll wonder why your high school math teacher made everything seem so hard.

If you’re interested in math, but not formulas and equations, you’ll love this wonderful book.  You might also want to check out his earlier effort, Sync, as well.

 

11. How to Create a Mind by Ray Kurzweil

Ray Kurzweil’s newest book is also his most personal and enjoyable.  It’s the first time I felt like I was getting to know (and like) the famous technology genius.  It is also much shorter (less than 300 pages) and more readable than his earlier books.

Beyond that, it gives a sensible, but comprehensive account of the state of artificial intelligence at a level that any reasonably interested reader can enjoy.  Kurzweil has recently taken a job with Google, heading up their artificial intelligence efforts so expect to see many of the concepts in this book applied in the real world.

 

12. The Fall by Albert Camus

I usually refrain from making fiction recommendations because I regard it as a personal preference.  However, since most people have read and enjoyed The Strangerin college, I’ll make an exception here.

Camus’ later work, The Fall, is a bit darker and more philosophical than its predecessor, but no less enjoyable.  It’s set in a dive bar in Amsterdam when a man strikes up a conversation with a former parisian lawyer who has renounced his former profession.  The body of the book is a monologue which explores guilt, innocence and responsibility.

Like Camus’ other books, it is short and clearly written, but with his characteristic wit and humor that belies astounding depth.  If you’re looking for some serious sustenance that you can polish off in a weekend, this is one you might want to check out.

 

So that’s my list for this summer.  If you have your own favorite book that has fallen through the cracks, please feel free to suggest it in the comments section.

– Greg

7 Responses
  1. May 26, 2013

    Awesome list Greg! I will definitely add at least two or three to my reading list this year! Two that I have recently read and found to be phenomenal are:

    – 9 Algorithms that Changed the Future
    – Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard

    Cheers!

    Sergio

    Greg Reply:

    Thanks Sergio! I read “9 Algorithms” and also found it excellent, but haven’t read “Switch.” I’ll be sure to check it out!

    – Greg

    Leslie Reply:

    Greg,

    Very interesting-looking list. A technology-oriented novelist I recommend is Neal Stephenson; he’s fascinating.
    And I have a suggestion for Manali: modern Russian novelist Gary Shteyngart.

    Greg Reply:

    Thanks for the suggestions Leslie!

    – Greg

  2. May 29, 2013

    I always check out your yearly compilations and while the books you choose are heavy on technology and science, could you also do a list on good East European writers I could read? Apart from usual suspects like Milan Kundera etc. I love reading books from various countries written in authentic voices by those foreign writers.

    Greg Reply:

    Manali,

    To be honest, I have not read too many of the contemporary novelists, but historically, you can try Poland’s Henryk Siekiewicz (Quo Vadis, With Fire and Sword), and Russia’s Mikhail Lermontov (A Man For Our Time) or Gogol (anything).

    I hope that helps!

    – Greg

  3. June 12, 2013

    Reading are enormous, some books will inspire you, motivate you, encourage you and by just reading you can raise your positive energy vibration. Reading is significant, everybody who wants to better their life should read a book every week, when we stop learning we stop growing and in this life you do one of two things, you either move forward in life or you go backwards, the day you stop learning is the day you give up on life.

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